Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Dream of the Unified Field, by Jorie Graham

jorie graham the dream of the unified fieldThis collection of poems cleaves abruptly in two, and not, surprisingly, at any break between two of the excerpted volumes but towards the end of one. Passing through all the poems selected from Graham's 1980 Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts
and 1983's Erosion and through most of 1987's End of Beauty, one thinks one has Graham's measure: a Rilke-like wash of image and language, unbroken in its steady stream of gorgeousness. It is almost too consistently beautiful in texture: never is it broken or knotted dramatically, and one misses the sudden rush of a juddering line of angular tension or hard emotion that makes a poem memorable apart from its luminous beauty. There is no bite, no moment where the smooth lushness of Graham's words and sentences sharpens to a point of arrest or intensity. There are ripples, but no peaks in her unified field. This evenness is not a frustrating lack, perhaps, but it is persistently noticeable.

Also like Rilke, the poems up to this point are marked by a sense of permanent evanescence, of cold or cool ecstasy, of distant eroticism. Transformation is the key theme, and the wondrousness of an enlarging consciousness of the world. This wondrousness tends to de-emphasize the poet and concomitantly blurs any fine distinctions between human and nature, foreshortening all existence into what Henry James calls "the palpable present intimate." This foreshortening eliminates the middle ground in which we typically perceive our distance from nature—in fact, perception itself seems to be eliminated as the language inundates us with a fulsome but controlled torrent of imagery.

Then one gets to "Imperialism," and it is as if the director of this film switched from Super 8 to Cinemascope (but without the vulgarity of that most ostentatious of formats). The poems become more ambitious, more political, more historical in outlook, and never look back. A series of incredible poems follows, opening 1991's Region of Unlikeliness. Graham suddenly becomes an Eliot or Yeats-like poet, with terrifying vigor. The imagery still strong, still inundating, now becomes chiseled, more like the rocks in the river than the water flowing over it. It's a breath-catching change.

"Imperialism" has got to be one of the finest poems I have read from a living poet, but I would have to quote the whole thing if I were to quote any of it. Instead, I'll offer this (still lengthy) bit from "The Tree of Knowledge," which is actually a sort of midpoint between the two styles—there is a sharpness to it, but it is intimate rather than historical:
When I reached for your hand in there,
when I ran my hand onto your hand,
it was to get that other sense of flesh,

where touch is the way to disappear,
the old dream of an underneath,
is it still there?
I feel the very top of your hand.
I feel the edge of you, the souvenir.
Ruffle the skin—gently.
Look down at it. Then close my eyes. Then try again.
What if there is no other side to this anymore—

just skin, skin,
rippling, folding under, tucked tight, taking
shape—rounding the corners, lining the
singleness, opening here and there to let the
eye through—
the sound of a moan now but magnified,

the sound of a moan in the speakers—
the red velvet corridors leafing back that way,
ticket booths, concession stands—brocade, embossed organza—
gold trimming, recessed lighting, rooms, rest rooms,
back that way, branching back, all the red foliage,
more in every direction,
starting from this plush armrest
with the reddish hand splayed out on it I can
no longer feel

out to the four edges of the only known world.

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